Big Ox Energy

The Big Ox Energy plant is shown April 19 at the Roth Industrial Park in South Sioux City. 

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska regulators and Big Ox Energy struck an agreement Monday to extend the decision date of whether or not the troubled South Sioux City biogas plant will be allowed to keep its state environmental permits.

The agreement stipulated that Big Ox cease operations immediately. However, the Wisconsin-based company has 60 days — until Sept. 9 — to report any further issues pertaining to the site of energy production and to properly take care of environmental issues at the facility.

"Big Ox is not currently operating and will continue not to operate during the pendency of this case, and they will not resume use of their bio-digesters either," said Susan Ugai, an attorney with the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy.

"We have made an inspection of the digester solids, which have been placed outside of the building, and our inspector found that those have been cleaned up," Ugai added.

Ugai spoke at a hearing Monday in Lincoln. The hearing was scheduled to give Big Ox an opportunity to tell the commission why its two state permits should not be revoked.

Mike Linder, an Omaha attorney representing the city of South Sioux City, said the city supports retaining the current operating permits, even if Big Ox sells the plant. A consultant is currently studying whether it would be financially feasible for the northeast Nebraska city to take over the biofuels plant, which has long been subject to odor complaints and environmental permit violations.

Linder noted it would take 6 to 12 months for a new owner to win approval for new permits.

"We would like the permits to stay," Linder said. "Having the permits active just keeps the opportunity for somebody — whether it be South Sioux City or potentially another buyer, although I don't necessarily think that's going to be the case."

No one from Big Ox attended the hearing, but Bill Guerry, an Washington, D.C. attorney for the company, participated by phone.

During the brief meeting, some sparks flew between Guerry and Ugai. Guerry stated that Big Ox had followed protocol in regard to an update of a bypass system Big Ox had installed. Ugai said that Big Ox had not submitted any report in regard to the bypass, even though they were required to.

Melanie Whittamore-Mantzios, a state-appointed hearing officer, presided over Monday's proceedings. Whittamore-Mantzios agreed to the deal to extend a decision on Big Ox's permits until Sept. 9.

The future of the energy plant is muddled, said Brian McManus, a spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy.

"At this point, our analysis is focusing on their permits," McManus said. "There were a number of issues in compliance that they're still working on. With the 60 days, there will be more information submitted to us so that we can come to a final decision."

During Linder's testimony, Whittamore-Mantzios asked him if he could offer any assurance that a new operator would comply with the requirements of the permits.

"Anyone assuming those permits needs to have full confidence that they could meet the permitable requirements," Linder said.

Big Ox Energy ceased all operations at the plant in early May after its permit to discharge wastewater into Sioux City's regional treatment plant expired. 

Sioux City officials have said the company must resolve several issues before it would issue a new permit. Chief among them is more than $3 million Big Ox owed in unpaid wastewater treatment fees, fines and late charges.

In addition to wastewater from its own production process, in which the plant accepted organic waste from local food and beverage manufacturers and converted it to methane, Big Ox had received wastewater from other South Sioux City industries, pretreated it and discharged it to the Sioux City plant on the other side of the Missouri River.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the Nebraska agency that held the hearing.

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